prodigal son

The Truth and Irony of Mercy

Irony may be described in one way as something happening, not that you don’t want to happen, but that you don’t expect to happen, that goes against what should be the case.  That is why it is ironic that right in the middle of the just completed Year of Mercy, decreed by Pope Francis in 2016, our current Canadian government, led by the sometime-Catholic Justin Trudeau, legalized what is euphemistically known as ‘medical assistance in dying’, an Orwellian doublespeak for allowing physicians to murder their patients, and for patients to request (or not) such murder of themselves by suicidal acquiescence.

Of course, they would see such permission, paid and sanctioned by law, as manifestly merciful.  What more unmerciful thing than to watch people die in slow agony?  Why not put them out of their misery?

The theme of ‘mercy’ is therefore very a propos in the Church and society at the present moment; along with tolerance, compassion, inclusion, they are all the rage in the secular world.

As we know from experience, the Church and the world, although they should live and grow in harmony, are often in conflict, and that conflict descends into the realm of the very words we use.

Before we get to the words, ponder other recent ironic ‘mercies’ in action of late:

The legalization of ‘same sex’ marriage in the United States, following Canada’s lead a decade on.  Why deny homosexuals the opportunity for marriage, just as we heterosexuals? Be merciful.

What of ‘hate speech’, and the enforcing of ‘inclusive’ terms in general? Now gone are binary pronouns, implying that there are only male and female, a he and a she, his and her…Now a he is a she is a zhe is a zho.  Not only is gender non-binary, it is ever-fluid, and can change from day to day.

And, irony of ironies, our government just passed a motion condemning ‘Islamaphobia’, any criticism of a religion that already outlaws any criticism of itself or its founder, amongst its adherents or others, often with death.  We should recall that back in 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address obliquely and calmly questioned the irrational and violent nature of early Islam, a number of Muslims responded by, you guessed it, acts of rampaging and killing. A religion of peace, spread by the sword. Quoting the erudite emperor Manuel II Paleologus, the gentle Pope declared,

God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death

And as he concludes, the key phrase there is that not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature

‘Reason’ is what makes us, as human, in God’s image. The great Thomist Josef Pieper wrote that language is the gateway and guide to reason, and reason is the principle of action.  So it is vital to get our terms straight, for otherwise we will act badly, and we all know where that leads.

Whatever we mean by ‘mercy’, mercy can never, ever, therefore, contradict ‘reason’, which here means ‘reason grounded in truth’, anchored to reality as God made it, an adequatio rei et intellectus.  And reason put into action is called ‘justice’, the constant and firm will to give to the other what is owed to him.  Without truth, reason and justice working in harmony, there is no such thing as mercy, only the false kind of emotionalism, an unbridled and unhinged ‘compassion’ that can be the source of grave evil.  In Latin, mercy is misericordia, which literally means to ‘feel sorrow in one’s heart’ for another, which is part of the problem.  We ‘feel’ someone’s pain, and we want to alleviate it, to bring them relief, to provide them with what they want, whether an early death or a disordered, unnatural marriage, or the death of their unborn child, or confirmation in their own sexual identity disorder..

To return to Pope Benedict, who wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritatis in Veritate, that charity divorced from truth is no charity, and no mercy, at all. As he puts it:

A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. (#4)

Mercy may go beyond justice, and may be its fulfilment, but mercy can never contradict justice, or leave it aside, which is why mercy must always be grounded in, and flow from, truth.  And sometimes, perhaps many times, mercy must be ‘severe’, to speak the truth, and act in accordance with it, without compromise.

Mercy is always a fruit of charity, the theological virtue by which we love God and our neighbour for His sake.  That is, we love as God loves, which means always to will the good of the other.

The question, of course, is what is the good of another?

That is a difficult question, but we do know that there are always things that are never good, regardless of how ‘merciful’ we may think them: Murder, suicide, pre-marital or abnormal sex, lying, apostasy, schism, abandoning the Church, rejecting the truth.  We may also add, it is never good for us to support others in these evils, whether by our adulation, our cooperation, even by our silence, when words must be spoken.

God has a way of bringing us out of sin by some radical intervention.  The flood was merciful, and likely saved many souls from eternal perdition by a quick death.  In any of the cataclysms  which followed, God was telling us something.  The crucifixion was the ultimate an act of mercy, the immolation of God Himself, in atonement for our sins.

Pope Francis warns us, rightly, that we must not use the truth as ‘stones’ to hurl at people, and we can usually let God do whatever ‘punishing’ needs to be done.  But at the same time, we must stand firm in the truth, willing the true good for others, in each and every situation, even if this is perceived as painful, or sorrowful.  This must be done delicately, requiring prudence, counsel and discernment. But done it must be.

I will close with a few words of practical advice:

First, know the truth, be grounded in it, and do not allow the fog of this modern, toxic, debilitating culture to suck the life out of our minds, our brains, our souls. Apply this first to revealed truth, those things ‘necessary for salvation’ which God has revealed to us through the Church.  Read the living word of God in Scripture, daily.  Follow the Liturgy, especially the Mass, and participate as and how you can.

But even natural truth can ground us in reality:  Learn the names of those birds singing in the trees on your yard, your street; for that matter, learn the names of the trees themselves, why the sky is blue, the points of light in the night sky; read great and good books and poetry, even in snippets.

Second, offer what truth you can to others.  Be not afraid to speak, when opportunity arises, and prudence and counsel tell us to do so.  And do this using words and terminology accurately and properly, particularly in reference to life issues. Ponder the words of the quiet and forceful Saint John Paul II, who wrote the book on mercy, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in reference to the crime of abortion, now so normalized, even blasé:

But today, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20). Especially in the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as “interruption of pregnancy”, which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this linguistic phenomenon is itself a symptom of an uneasiness of conscience. But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.

The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears.    

Au contraire, continues the great Pope later in the same document:  Women who have had an abortion must realize that what they have done “was and remains terribly wrong”. But he continues:  “…do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child”.

That is truth, and that is mercy.  Curiously, in another irony, France, in the process of choosing a new leader, just back in February outlawed any webpage or electronic communication that spreads ‘misleading information’ about abortion, including anything that claims abortion, or having one’s child murdered, has any ‘negative consequences’.  As they put it, this could traumatize women who have chosen to ‘interrupt their pregnancy’.  Most pro-life webpages are now illegal, punishable by massive fines and up to two years in jail. To add insult to injury, France also forbade a video of Down’s syndrome children thanking their parents, for, yes, allowing them to live.  Same reason, for a good number of those babies killed were likely diagnosed with Down’s.

What applies to abortion applies to every sin, every privation, every degradation, from homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, transgenderism, all the way to gender fluidity which, as a recent article declared, can change from day to day.  And, not least, here in sunny ways Canada, euthanasia, which we should not call ‘medical assistance in dying’, about as evil and obfuscatory a euphemism as one could imagine, but, what it is, murder and suicide, ironically carried out state-paid by physicians and nurses, whose most foundational principle is ‘First, do no harm…’

Of course, with Pope Francis, we must lead people to the truth gradually, without gradualizing the law itself.  That does not mean that we condone their evil; for we must call evil and good for what they are.

This is the mercy that the world needs, for my people perish from lack of knowledge, and to give them the truth is the greatest good we can do.

Finally, for now, be not conformed to this world but, as Saint Peter tells the first Christians at the beginning of the Book of Acts: Save yourselves from this crooked generation (Acts 2:40)  This is the basic premise of what has come to be known, somewhat misleadingly, as the ‘Benedict Option’, with Christians retreating from the world, setting up enclaves in which to ‘save themselves’ from this ‘crooked generation’, which seems to be getting more bent with each passing day.

I say ‘misleadingly’, since Saint Benedict of Nurcia was simply practising what Christ and the earliest monks in the desert of Egypt and Palestine were doing, and all Christians from that time forward have always done: To be in the world, but not of the world.  We are called to evangelize wherever we go, but whatever is meant by immersing ourselves in what Pope Francis calls the ‘smell of the sheep’, it cannot mean becoming ‘like the sheep’.  The ‘world’ should be able to tell that we are Christians, not just by a vague, amorphous, emotional and ultimately destructive ‘love’, but by how we live, act and interact, our conduct, our speech, our chastity, integrity and truth, by keeping our word, by our excellence in all things.

We do this not by our own power, of course, but by Christ, who has revealed to us all that it means to be ‘human’.  To hide this from, or, worse, obscure this for, the world is a great scandal. Whether we are called to the monastery in the wilderness, or to the corner of 32nd and 5th in Manhattan, we all must retreat’ from the world to be ‘with Christ’, sometimes physically, at Mass, at set times of prayer, during certain times of the year; but also interiorly, to build an ‘interior castle’ as Saint Theresa of Avila put it, to guard that interior realm of our conscience, where we are ‘ alone with God’,

For we offer the mercy of truth more by our example than by our words.  As Saint Paul wrote to the early Church at Philippi:

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16)

This is the greatest mercy we can offer to the world around us.  To live as lights wherever we are called in the world, so the world may come to the truth, which is the only thing that will set them free, both now, and in eternity.

 

(adapted from an address offered on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2017)

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